The Best Man to Trust
Author:Kerry Connor

CHAPTER Six



The sight of the body lying in the middle of the hallway wasn’t any easier to see the second time. As soon as Meredith stepped onto the second floor and spotted Haley there, she had to repress a shudder, the wave of revulsion rising in her belly.

“Let me get my cameras,” Tom said softly. Moving past them, he headed toward his room, carefully avoiding the body in the center of the hall.

Beside her, she heard Rick swear under his breath, and she realized this was his first time seeing the body. She glanced over at him, his face paler than it had been moments earlier. “Thank you for doing this,” she murmured. “You don’t have to, though, if you don’t want to. I know it’s above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I can handle it. It’s not my first time seeing a dead body. But I guess you never really get used to it, and I’ve sure never seen anything like this.”

She’d forgotten for a moment that Rick had served in the army and done several tours of duty overseas. She should have realized he’d seen the dead before, though from his expression there was something uniquely horrifying about this.

Tom returned with the handheld video camera and Nikon he’d brought. Meredith and Rick waited out of the way as he slowly and methodically went about documenting the scene, first on still images, then on video.

It was fascinating watching him work. He took his time, recording every inch of the body and area around it. The hands that held the camera were steady and true, his gaze just as stable as he focused on the screen on the camera. When he moved in front of her, she caught glimpses of the screen, observing how he zoomed in and out to give both a close and wider view of what he was recording.

Meredith watched him bend on one knee, focusing the camera on the floor beside the body. Curious, she leaned closer to see what he was fixing on.

Then she spotted them, the series of red marks on the carpet leading from the body. “Is that blood?”

“Looks like it,” he confirmed.

Meredith followed the trail with her eyes, from where it began at the body to a door several feet away.

“That’s the door to Haley’s room,” she noted just as he began to turn the camera on it. Why would there be a trail of blood from Haley’s room toward the body? She supposed the most obvious answer was...

She stepped forward. “Do you want me to open it?” she asked, referring to the door.

Tom never took his eyes from the viewer on the camera. “I think you should.”

Meredith reached out and released the door, then slowly nudged it open. The light was still on inside. Almost immediately she spotted the blood just inside the door, leading farther into the room, growing denser as it proceeded.

Tom carefully moved inside, tracking the blood with his camera. Meredith followed a few steps behind, unable to resist, even as a little tremor of unease rumbled through her. She felt Rick fall into line behind her.

Tom came to an abrupt stop, aiming the camera toward the center of the room. Meredith peered around his shoulder, her breath hitching as she saw what he was recording. There was no mistaking the blood splattered across the center of the floor, the pool thick and wide on the blue rug she’d chosen and laid in place herself.

“This is the murder scene,” she whispered hoarsely.

“I would bet on it,” Tom said.

“So she was killed in here and then moved out into the hallway.” It certainly explained why the trail of blood got smaller as it reached the door. “But why?”

“Because the killer wanted her to be discovered.”

It was Rick who drew the conclusion, but Tom nodded an instant later. “It makes the most sense. If she’d simply been left in here, she most likely wouldn’t have been found until morning, maybe when she didn’t come down for breakfast. Putting her in the middle of the hallway, where someone would absolutely see her if they needed to use the bathroom, guaranteed she would be found sooner.”

Goose bumps raised along her skin as the implications of it sank in.

“The killer wanted everyone to know this had happened,” Meredith said numbly. “He—or she—wanted everyone to be afraid.”

“I’d say mission accomplished then,” Tom said.

“It makes sense, since the knife was left in her,” Rick said. “It couldn’t have been easy to move her like that. Or else the killer stuck the knife back in after she was moved.”

“The killer wanted to make sure everyone not only knew that she was dead, but exactly how she died.” It would have been horrifying enough to find Haley lying in the middle of the floor with her chest coated in blood. But actually seeing the big knife, leaving no doubt exactly what had killed her, had made it so much worse.

Meredith let out a long, deep breath, trying to control her racing pulse. “It’s not just to scare everybody, is it? It’s a warning. Whoever it is intends to kill again.”

As much as she wanted someone to disagree, no one argued the conclusion.

“Maybe we should get out of here,” Tom said. “I have everything I need.”

“Good idea,” Meredith agreed. She reached in her pocket for her keys. “I’ll lock the room so no one else can come in until the police get here.”

They quickly filed back to the exit. Rick and Tom ducked through first. Shutting off the light, Meredith pulled the door shut and locked it behind her.

Turning around, her eyes fell back on the trail of blood on the floor. Frowning, she automatically checked the floor around the rest of the body. “There’s no blood leading to any of the other rooms.”

Tom nodded. “I noticed that.”

“That’s strange, isn’t it? I’m no blood expert, but wouldn’t the killer have gotten some on him—or her?” Given Haley’s injuries, it seemed inevitable.

“I would say so,” Rick agreed.

“Yet they managed to not leave a trail leading back to them.”

“Whoever it is was very careful,” Tom observed. “Most likely, the killer knew what he was doing.”

Meredith didn’t miss the glance Tom shot at Rick, his steady gaze full of suspicion. A wave of indignation rose inside her, and she had to bite back the retort that rose to her lips, not wanting to say anything in front of Rick. In all fairness she knew Tom had every right to suspect him. Everyone had to be considered a possible suspect, but it only made sense that he would especially question someone who was a complete stranger to him.

But Meredith was equally convinced Rick couldn’t be responsible. “There’s something else,” Meredith said. She forced herself to look back at the body. “That knife,” she said, indicating the item still jutting out of Jessica’s chest. “I don’t recognize the handle. It’s definitely not one from the house.”

She watched Tom process that information in light of what they’d discussed earlier. “Which means it probably belongs to whoever did this. They must have brought it with them.”

It did seem like the most likely explanation. The only alternative she could think of would be that the knife belonged to Haley and it had somehow been used against her, but she couldn’t imagine why Haley would have brought a knife like that. No, the most reasonable explanation was that it had been brought here for this very purpose. “So this wasn’t something that happened on the spur of the moment. It was premeditated. Whoever it was came here intending to do this....”

Her voice faded as it hit her just how much worse this kept getting.

The killer wasn’t just careful and methodical. He—or she—was prepared. And if this was what happened on the first night, there was no telling what the killer had planned for the next few days.

She struggled to think of something, anything that might indicate who could have done this. “Do you think it’s a man?” she asked numbly. “It would have taken some strength to move the body, right?” Neither Rachel or Jessica was particularly big. She couldn’t see either of them having much in the way of arm strength.

Ellen, on the other hand...

Meredith tried to shut down the thought before it could form, not wanting to go there, even as a little voice deep inside whispered that she was going to have to at least consider the possibility.

All eyes went to the woman on the floor. “Not necessarily,” Rick said after a moment. “She’s not very big. It wouldn’t have taken much to move her. All the killer would’ve had to do is grab her under her shoulders and drag her out here.”

Meredith slowly raised her eyes to look at him, unable to resist the impulse. Out of the corner of her eye, she sensed Tom do the same.

Rick held up his hands, no doubt picking up on what they were so obviously wondering. “I’m just guessing here. I know about moving stuff. I’m saying that’s how I would do it, not that I did.”

“Nobody thinks you did, Rick,” Meredith said automatically, shaking off her momentary doubts and doing her best not to glance at Tom. “So it could have been anyone.” Even Rachel or—

Another thought occurred to her. “I didn’t see any blood on Jessica, did you?” Meredith asked Tom.

Tom was silent for a moment. Whether it was because he was thinking about it or because he didn’t like having to consider Jessica as a suspect, Meredith couldn’t tell. “No, but there’s always the possibility she quickly changed, then came back into the hall and started screaming to make it look like she’d just discovered the body.”

Her screams had seemed genuine, Meredith thought, the memory of them enough to send her skin crawling again. But that didn’t necessarily mean anything. “She is an actress, isn’t she?”

Tom met her eyes with clear reluctance. “Yes.”

“She was awful quick to start throwing accusations around,” Rick said.

Meredith couldn’t argue with him about that. He was right, and he hadn’t even been there when Haley’s body had been found and Jessica had first started accusing people. “I don’t know her well enough to know if that’s suspicious or typical of her personality.”

“Unfortunately, I can’t say, either,” Tom said. “Like Haley, I hadn’t seen her in years before today. I admit she’s a lot more unpleasant than I remember, but I don’t know how much of that is just an indication of how much she’s changed over the years.”

Meredith swallowed. She should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Tom cleared his throat. “I guess we should finish what we came here to do. The others are going to be wondering what’s taking us so long.”

He was right. She surveyed Haley one more time, considering how to proceed. “There’s an empty room down the hall,” she said finally. “We can put her in there.”

“Sounds good,” Tom agreed.

Retrieving a sheet from a nearby closet, Meredith spread it out on the floor. Working together, Tom and Rick placed the body on the sheet and gently wrapped it. Meredith moved ahead to open the door to the room, stepping out of the way to let them carry the body inside. They quickly did so, wasting no time stepping back out once the task was done. As soon as they were back in the hallway, Meredith locked the door.

When they were finally done with the grim task, no one seemed to be much in the mood to talk. They made their way back to the living room in silence.

Everyone gathered in the room looked up at their entrance. No one said anything, but the question was clearly in their eyes.

“It’s done,” Meredith confirmed. “Everyone can head up to bed.”

No one gave any sign of relief, only acceptance as they began to rise from their seats.

“In the meantime,” Tom said, “until we get to the bottom of this, I’d like to suggest everyone try to stay together and not go anywhere alone. It should be safer that way.”

“Unless the person you’re alone with is the killer,” Alex said darkly.

The comment was met with a nervous silence. Meredith saw Jessica shudder. Rachel leaned a little closer into Scott.

Meredith turned to Rick and Ellen. “Would the two of you like to stay upstairs with the rest of us, so you’re not so isolated on the other side of the house? There are still plenty of rooms.” Even without the one that had been turned into a makeshift morgue.

Rick and Ellen glanced at each other, seeming to share a look, before turning back to Meredith. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d rather stay where I am,” Ellen told her.

“Me, too,” Rick agreed.

“All right,” Meredith said. While she wouldn’t have minded having them close so she’d have a better idea whether they were safe, she could certainly understand why they would want to be away from the wedding guests. After listening to all the bickering and suspicions, being isolated on the other side of the house away from these people—one of whom might be a killer—didn’t sound like a bad thing. Not to mention, Rick likely wasn’t in any hurry to spend the night upstairs near the body after what he’d just had to do. “I guess I’ll see you both in the morning then?”

They both nodded.

She watched them go, disappearing into the other wing and the darkness that led to the rear of the house.

The rest of the group made their way up the staircase without speaking. Meredith didn’t know if it was exhaustion or the traumatic events of the past few hours that kept them quiet and subdued. She wouldn’t have blamed them for either.

When they made it to the second floor, Jessica hurried to her room, quickly slamming the door shut. The sound of the lock fastening was audible down the hall.

Scott glanced back when he and Rachel reached their room, Rachel ducking inside first. “Good night,” he said.

“’Night, man,” Tom said. “See you tomorrow.”

With a nod, Scott went inside.

Down the hall, Alex and Greg retreated to their respective rooms.

Until she and Tom were the only ones left.

Meredith felt a sudden awkwardness as they stood there in the echoing stillness of the corridor. It seemed strange. After everything they’d been through in the past few hours, she should feel comfortable around him. But there it was nonetheless.

“Thank you for your help tonight,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what I would have done without it.”

“I’m glad I was able to do something,” he said. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

She remembered when he’d asked her that in the downstairs hall, remembered the way his low, deep voice had washed over, remembered the kindness and concern in his eyes, much as it was now.

Remembered how she’d freaked out a little when he’d touched her, her whole body practically having a seizure at the contact.

Embarrassment flooded her at the memory, as well as fresh anger at Brad and what he’d put her through. When would that nightmare no longer have that kind of effect on her? When would she finally, fully, be able to move past what he’d done to her?

“I’m as fine as I can be,” she assured him. “We should try to get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night.”

Ducking her head, she turned away. Her room was farther down the hall away from the others. Close to where they’d put Haley, she acknowledged with a shudder. At the time she’d thought it would be best if she stayed nearby in case anyone needed anything. She’d never imagined how necessary that would prove to be.

She quickly made her way there, eyeing the closed doors she passed along the way. Prickles of warning rose along her skin, as though her instincts were telling her that any moment one of those doors could burst open and someone would lunge out at her, knife in hand....

She finally arrived at her room. Unlocking the door, she pushed it open, then glanced back.

Tom stood in his doorway, watching her.

When he saw her looking back at him, he raised his hand in acknowledgment. He made no move to enter his room, simply standing there facing her. She realized he was waiting for her to go in first, waiting to make sure she was safe and secure behind closed doors.

She knew she shouldn’t read too much into it. It was exactly as he’d said earlier—they should stick together, stay in pairs. He wasn’t doing for her what he wouldn’t do for anyone else. It wasn’t really personal.

And yet, it felt personal all the same. A heady warmth poured through her at the knowledge, at the feeling of his eyes on her. After everything that had happened and working so hard to take care of everyone else, she had to admit it felt good knowing someone was looking out for her. And to have it be this man, of all people, only made it sweeter.

With one last little wave good-night, she stepped inside and closed the door, firmly locking it behind her.

* * *

ONE DOWN...

Everything had gone even better than anticipated. It had been so easy. Haley hadn’t understood how much trouble she’d been in until the very end. Then she had. She’d been terrified.

And then she was dead.

The best part had been watching the reactions of the others afterward, particularly the ones who needed to suffer. The fear in their eyes. The panic about what was happening. The realization that they were trapped. The concern that they could be next.

They were scared.

They should be.